Bellwether

He's Back! Berlusconi takes center stage in Italy

John Moody

Never count a showman out. Whether the name is Trump, Clinton (Bill, not the other one), or in this case, Berlusconi.

Yes, the one-time cruise boat crooner who became a Midas-like media magnate and later served as Italy’s prime minister three times, exhumed himself from the political cemetery this week. Once disgraced as an aged lecher, Berlusconi, at age 80, is once again a force to be reckoned with. Force, as in the name of his right-of-center political organization, Forza Italia.

Just as Donald Trump’s election last year stunned the self-appointed political experts and the left-of-center media, the results of Sunday’s local elections across Italy left Berlusconi’s many, many critics sputtering with outrage and disbelief.

“I’m back,” Berlusconi, wearing pancake makeup and inky-black spray-on hair to conceal his age, told supporters. “I am the driving force of the center-right.”

Italians, like so many Europeans, are tired of the high unemployment, fitful economic growth, and government corruption that is part of Italy’s political profile. They also chafe at the stultifying regulations imposed on them by the European Union, of which Italy is a charter member.

That may be true, but it doesn’t mean he will ever again be prime minister, as he was off-and-on during the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s not just his age that works against him. Berlusconi was banned in 2013 from serving in any public post for six years after his conviction on tax evasion charges. You don’t get to be a billionaire by obeying the rules.

But it is Berlusconi whose persona and celebrated status ensured Forza Italia’s victory. Like Trump, he is an outsize figure, who shrugs off the savage criticism of his many foes in the political establishment and media, and appeals directly to his countrymen.

Italians, like so many Europeans, are tired of the high unemployment, fitful economic growth, and government corruption that is part of Italy’s political profile. They also chafe at the stultifying regulations imposed on them by the European Union, of which Italy is a charter member. They voted in local elections in more than 100 cities to turn away from the left-of-center Democratic Party, which has failed to make life better for a people who, after all, gave the world La Dolce Vita.

Stung just as badly as the left was the insurgent Five-Star Movement, which campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, and which also toys with the notion of pulling out of the E.U., as the United Kingdom voted to do last year. Berlusconi’s party hasn’t gone that far – yet.

The results of the elections – even though they were local, not national – will revive hand-wringing and long-winded editorials about the danger of leaving the security blanket of the E.U. But Italians can rightly ask what the Brussels-based union has done for them lately. Berlusconi can’t be elected prime minister. But he can add his larger than life personality and rhetorical flourish to the debate at precisely the time when Italians are wondering if it isn’t time to bring back bread and circuses. 

John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."